President Donald Trump had been in office just days when he authorized his first military operation — a chaotic raid on al-Qaeda in Yemen that left one Navy SEAL dead.
Trump, the first person to be elected president of the United States without any political or military experience, had run on a non-interventionist platform — promising to defeat ISIS, but to devote most of his energy and resources to “making America great again.”
“America first will be the overriding theme of my administration,” Trump said in an April 2016 foreign policy address. “I will never send our finest into battle unless necessary, and I mean absolutely necessary, and will only do so if we have a plan for victory with a capital V.”
But, as his failed raid on Yemen in early 2017 showed, his would be a confused kind of isolationism, one in which he’d distance the U.S. from international agreements like the Paris climate accord, but continue to engage in — and even escalate — the conflicts he inherited while appearing to stumble toward new ones.
Trump professes his love for the military
Trump has surrounded himself with former military officials — and has made his performative support of the military a political weapon.
He currently has three retired generals in prominent administration positions: H.R. McMaster, his national security adviser; James “Mad Dog” Mattis, his secretary of defense; and John Kelly, his chief of staff.
Michael Flynn, his short-lived national security adviser who was brought down by the FBI’s Russia probe in December, is also a retired general.
Kelly, in particular, has had a major role in the Trump administration, widely regarded as the “adult in the room” tasked with containing the notoriously impulsive president.
He is the first ex-general to serve as chief of staff since Gen. Alexander Haig served in the Nixon White House.
“Frankly, [Trump is] way too impressed in the generals,” a Trump confidante told Politico in 2016. “The more braid you have on your shoulders and the more laurels that you have on your visor, the more impressed he is.”
He hasn’t just surrounded himself with generals; he’s also spent the first year of his presidency name-dropping the military to make political points.
He started his term by calling for “historic” increases in military funding, while also proposing to gut the Department of Education, the Environmental Protection Agency and other key domestic programs. He also frequently invoked the military last fall in his condemnation of NFL players who protested racial injustice by kneeling during the pregame national anthem. And, most recently, he sought to shame Democrats over this weekend’s government shutdown by saying his opponents were “holding our Military hostage over their desire to have unchecked illegal immigration.”
“Can’t let that happen!” he tweeted Saturday.
Trump continues, escalates military operations
Throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump positioned himself as the less-hawkish of the two major candidates, at one point going as far as to say that the U.S. could “end up in World War III” if Hillary Clinton was elected.
That prognostication, days before voters went to the ballot box, was made in reference to what Trump said was a too-aggressive position on Syria by his Democratic opponent.
“We should not be focusing on Syria,” Trump said. “You’re going to end up in World War III over Syria if we listen to Hillary Clinton.”
But in April, after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched a devastating chemical attack on his own people, Trump issued a missile strike against the Syrian government, targeting a government airfield with 59 Tomahawk missiles.
“Tonight, I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types,” Trump said at the time. “We pray for the lives of the wounded and for the souls of those who passed. And we hope as long as America stands for justice and peace and harmony will in the end prevail.”
This would become a theme of Trump’s first year in office.
As Micah Zenko pointed out in Foreign Policy at the end of 2017, Trump has “maintained or expanded the wars that he inherited from” predecessor Barack Obama. He struck all of the countries Obama hit in his eight years as president in just eight months, and dropped more bombs in nine months than Obama did in all of 2016. Further, Zenko noted, those strikes have led to a “more than proportional increase in civilian deaths.”
But as his first year in office drew to an end, his administration announced that it would remain in Syria indefinitely, leading some — like the Washington Post’s Adam Taylor — to believe that the president is drawing us deeper into the “forever war.” That is, the War on Terror, which began under George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11.
“When presented with multiple foreign-policy options, Trump has almost always gone with expanded conflict,” Taylor wrote Friday.
Conflicts to come?
While Trump has expanded the conflicts the U.S. is already in, he has raised concerns about the potential to bring the country into new ones.
His ongoing brinkmanship with Kim Jong Un has raised the specter of war with North Korea, which has said a strike on the U.S. is “inevitable” because of the president’s insults.
While some in the Trump administration have reportedly considered a so-called “bloody nose” strike on North Korea to show off U.S. military might, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has pushed for diplomatic solutions on the peninsula.
Trump, though, has said that Tillerson is “wasting his time” hoping to negotiate with Pyongyang and that “only one thing will work” with Kim — implying that using military force is the only answer to North Korea.
“Save your energy Rex,” Trump tweeted in October. “We’ll do what has to be done!”